KAMI Is a Bright Light in Chicago’s Vibrant Rap Scene

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The rapper and singer has a lot to say about blurring lines between genre and what progress means as an artist

Chicago rapper KAMI is switching up his musical style with the release of his new mixtape “Just Like The Movies.” His love and pursuit of art is evident on many tracks on the new project, a collection of songs where he intentionally blurs the divide between rapper and singer.

As one co-founder of the Chicago-based rap collective SAVEMONEY — also helmed by popular Chicago wordsmiths Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Towkio and a handful of others — KAMI, whose real name is Kene Ekwunife, surrounds himself with positive influences. The childhood-friends-turned-rappers are all developing their individual sounds.

KAMI’s tightly connected group of friends has become a point of reference for his music. Chance has forged new sounds with his touring band, The Social Experiment, and revamped how the music industry gives awards by winning a Grammy without selling any physical music. Vic Mensa is beginning to find success in the radio world after signing to Jay-Z’s label, Roc Nation. Towkio is creating mind-boggling electronic-rap hybrids with legendary producer Rick Rubin.

While his peers have been finding their sounds, KAMI, who’s now 24 years old, has honed in on his own creative process and said he’s supportive of his friends’ success.

“I don’t feel pressure from my friends. They are my friends and they don’t apply pressure to me — pressure to make art is something that’s internal. They’re all doing their own thing. It’s helpful because you have so many references as to what works and what doesn’t,” KAMI said. “Vic and the guys I can always talk to.”

The rapper has been steadily plotting his rise with the long-awaited release of his latest project, which came out on April 28, and a number of accompanying videos set to follow. His fans and his long-time friends have been counting down the moments until his takeoff.

Since his early days in the SAVEMONEY collective, KAMI used rap to find his place in the world. Inspired by Andre 3000 and synthy pop like David Bowie, the Chicagoan makes a compelling argument that music doesn’t have to be classified by genre.

“Listeners always pay attention to something more if you draw a greater juxtaposition,” KAMI said. “Duality and versatility [help] shape new perspective. Once you show that you can put two things together, there’s always a new result.”

With the help of rising Chicago producer Knox Fortune, “Just Like The Movies” takes a page from the neo-funk sound of the 1980s. The album features heavy synths and stuttered rhythms that make listeners imagine neon signs pulsing, and listeners find KAMI crooning over intricate melodies with a newfound admiration for new-wave.

KAMI’s focus on vocals is a departure from his previous work on his 2012 mixtape “Light” and his Leather Corduroys project with Joey Purp, “Season,” where he rapped at lightning speed with incendiary energy. “Just Like The Movies” finds KAMI exploring new ground. The Chicagoan put rap on the backburner and took a detour into singing.

“I was looking for any kind of shift in my songs. Ones that didn’t necessarily have the 16-bar sound structure,” KAMI said. “I wanted to explore being able to take phrases and make a whole song [with them]  — saying something so potent that it can carry a whole song.”

The combination of singing and rapping carries throughout “Just Like The Movies.” Listeners get lost in the whirl of an extravagant party on “Miami White Limousines.” As the mixtape progresses, the tempo becomes slower and he comes out swinging with bars.

“Why your best friends turn to enemies — I drown my pain in amphetamines” raps KAMI on the slowed-down “Feel Better.” The Chicago rapper continues with saying, “Feeling bad, never felt better” or “Feeling bad never felt better,” leaving it up to the listener to interpret which words are emphasized.

Even the structure of the album has a binary nature. Melodic ‘80s cuts comprise the first half, one highlight being “Home Movies,” while syrupy, distorted raps comprise the second, most notably in “Right Now” and the album’s self-titled anthem.

“Just Like The Movies” features an immensely complex human: a blend of influences and characters make up KAMI as an artist. On this project, the rising Chicago talent creates a character that stays with the listener long after the screening.

You can listen to the album on Spotify and Apple Music below: